Why We Don't Have 'Food Rules' In Our House

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Irina Dobrolyubova / Getty Images

It began when my two-year-old, a very tiny kid and a very picky eater, starting requesting food in the middle of the night. Oh my goodness, I was not happy about that at all. My solution was to begin offering him right-before-bed snacks, which seemed to put a halt to his middle-of-the-night munchies.

I figured, my kid was hungry, and the 11-12 hours he slept at night was a long time for a little one like him to go without food. Made sense to me, and while it could be a real pain-in-the-ass to prepare the kid a bowl of pasta at 8 p.m., it was what worked for us.

I didn’t know my choice was taboo until a few months later when I attended a local mommy-and-me class. A mom of two cute twin boys was bemoaning how hungry they could get and how frequently they ate. I could totally relate to that. But then she started telling me that she had an eating cut-off for her kids.

“The kitchen is closed after dinner, no ifs, ands or buts,” she proclaimed.

In a way, that wasn’t that much different than what we did. My kid usually was in bed by 8 p.m. or so. So a 6 or 6:30 p.m. cut-off wasn’t that different.

But what was different, as the mom explained to me when I probed a little (I’m nosy!), was that if her kids ended up asking her for food after the dinner mark, she wouldn’t give it to them. No way, no how.

This is where I started to get uncomfortable. To me, having strict rules like these about eating – especially concerning little kids, whose little bellies are the size of their little fists – is problematic.

In my view, it’s important to teach our kids to listen to their bodies and be in touch with their hunger cues. Placing a strict and arbitrary deadline on when they can eat goes against that.

I’m all about rules and boundaries for kids in other arenas. My kids have always had a clear cut-off time for screen time. We have rules about cleaning up after yourself and how to treat your fellow humans.

But eating is different.

Yes, I believe that parents need to have rules around eating junk food, because if left to their own devices, kids would probably want to subsist solely on cookies and ice cream. Encouraging well balanced meals is also awesome.

However, a child’s hunger is something that they and only they should be in control of. So many of us grown-ups have major hang-ups around this exact issue. We restrict our food intakes, we overeat. We feel guilt about eating, not eating, etc. It’s a damn mess.

Part of the problem lies is that, growing up, so few of us were given full body autonomy when it came to hunger. So many of us were not allowed to truly be in touch with what signals our bodies were sending us, and so few of us were encouraged to listen to that.

Giving your child the ability to be in touch with their hunger in this way is a gift, in my opinion.

Okay, okay, but what about how freaking annoying it can be? When you let your kid eat essentially “on demand,” especially in the evenings, they could end up eating and eating forever … and you know, using it as a tactic to delayi their bedtime (I don’t put it past kids to do this).

I get this, and I have been there. I would say that you know your kid best, and if you feel that they are “taking advantage” of your open kitchen rules, then by all means, you can figure out what boundaries you might need to set there. Allowing your child freedom to eat according to their own hunger is not a black-and-white thing.

When kids are a little older, you can definitely have more reasonable conversations with them about regulating their food intake to certain times of day.

Now that my kids are past the toddler/preschool age, I can work with them on things like this. I can say, “Listen, you need to get in bed by 8 p.m., so if you need a bedtime snack, now is the time to do it.” And most of the time, they will listen to me, because we have established mutual lines of respect when it comes to this issue.

Obviously, I’m not saying that if you choose to have a strict eating cut-off time (or something like a “no snacks” rule) that you are starving your kid or screwing them up in some major way. I’m sure most kids adjust to a schedule like that and do just fine.

The problem in my eyes is that little kids’ bodies are not the same as ours, and it’s very reasonable for them to be hungry much more often than we are, especially when they are having a growth-spurt or whatnot.

I don’t think it sends them the right message when we restrict their eating in what must feel like a very arbitrary way to them. Imagine feeling suddenly starving out of your mind (which many kids are, especially when they are itty bitty), and then someone saying, “Sorry, you’re not allowed to eat between the hours of 12pm-2pm, because I said so.”

You would be totally pissed off. And justified. As adults, if we are hungry, we can typically walk into our kitchen and grab something to eat. It doesn’t matter what time it is. Why would we enforce different guidelines on our young children?

I think that in the end, we all want to raise happy, healthy children and there is no one right way to do that. But when it comes to feeding our kids, our top job is to to teach them to listen to their bodies: eat until they’re hungry, and stop when they’re full.

Sometimes the whole thing can be extremely inconvenient, erratic, and annoying. But feeding kids – heck, raising kids – is just like that sometimes. And setting them up with a healthy relationship to food is so worth it in the end.

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